Pharma’s Doctors for Hire


(cc photo by rodrigo senna)

Charles Ornstein, Tracy Weber, and Dan Nguyen have an excellent ProPublica feature out today examining the conflict-of-interest ridden nexus of pharmaceutical company marketing and medical doctors. In particular, it looks like a lot of pharma’s favorite speakers aren’t exactly the best and the brightest:

Drug companies say they hire the most-respected doctors in their fields for the critical task of teaching about the benefits and risks of their drugs.

But an investigation by ProPublica uncovered hundreds of doctors on company payrolls who had been accused of professional misconduct, were disciplined by state boards or lacked credentials as researchers or specialists.

This story is the first of several planned by ProPublica examining the high-stakes pursuit of the nation’s physicians and their prescription pads. The implications are great for patients, who in the past have been exposed to such heavily marketed drugs as the painkiller Bextra and the diabetes drug Avandia — billion-dollar blockbusters until dangerous side effects emerged.

“Without question the public should care,” said Dr. Joseph Ross, an assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine who has written about the industry’s influence on physicians. “You would never want your kid learning from a bad teacher. Why would you want your doctor learning from a bad doctor, someone who hasn’t displayed good judgment in the past?”

To take this in a new media direction rather than a health care direction, the need for someone to undertake projects like this is why it’s important for at least some philanthropic effort to be dedicated to ventures like ProPublica that aren’t working on the minute-to-minute news cycle. The good news is that thanks to digital technology the funds that were invested in the reporting of this feature have a dramatically higher payoff than they otherwise would have.

For one thing, people all over the country—all over the world, in fact—now have the opportunity to read it rather than the audience being restricted to one metropolitan area. For another thing, the research at the core of the article isn’t sitting around in a filing cabinet somewhere—ProPublica’s created an online searchable and sortable database that will be useful to the public and to other researchers and reporters. Last and probably most important, people who don’t read this story today will be able to find it tomorrow and next week and next month and even next year. Lots of important journalism isn’t really about “the news” in the sense of “stuff that happened yesterday” and the Internet makes it much more viable to put things out there that kind of float independently of specific timing.